Why Environmentalists May Make This Whale Species Extinct
Leighton Woodhouse and Michael Shellenberger
Since the passage of the 1973 Endangered Species Act, environmentalists have fought for strict protections for endangered species. They have demanded that the government apply what is known as the “precautionary principle,” which states that if there is any risk that a human activity will make a species extinct, it should be illegal.
And yet here we are, on the 50th anniversary of the Endangered Species Act, watching the whole of the environmental movement — from the Audubon Society and the National Wildlife Federation to scientific groups like the Woods Hole Institute, New England Aquarium, and Mystic Aquarium — betray the precautionary principle by risking the extinction of the North Atlantic right whale.
The cause of this environmental betrayal are massive industrial wind energy projects off the East Coast of the U.S. The wind turbine blades are the length of a football field. Sitting atop giant poles they will reach three times higher than the Statue of Liberty. The towers will be directly inside critical ocean habitat for the North Atlantic right whale.
There are only 340 of the whales left, down from 348 just one year earlier. So many North Atlantic right whales are killed by man-made factors that there have been no documented cases of any of them dying of natural causes in decades. Their average life expectancy has declined from a century to 45 years. A single additional unnatural and unnecessary death could risk the loss of the entire species.
Surveying for, building, and operating industrial wind projects could harm or kill whales, according to the U.S. government’s own science.
The National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) has given the wind industry 11 “incidental harassment authorizations,” or permits to harass hundreds of whales, including 169 critically endangered right whales.
The industry will bring more ships into the areas that could strike and kill whales. Submarine noise pollution from the wind farm’s construction and operation, and entanglements in equipment, also add to the risk. So too could air turbulence generated by the turbines harm or destroy zooplakton feeding grounds.
And, now, wind developers are demanding higher speed limits for their boats. If they don’t get them, the industry claims, it will need to build hotels for the workers at the sites, right in the middle of right whale habitat.
Defenders of the wind projects say they can reduce and mitigate the noise and ship traffic from the wind farm construction, but a senior scientist with the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) contradicted that claim last spring when he wrote in a letter that “oceanographic impacts from installed and operating [wind] turbines cannot be mitigated for the 30-year lifespan of the project unless they are decommissioned.”
Scientists representing many of the same environmental groups supporting the industrial wind energy projects wrote in a 2021 letter that “the North Atlantic right whale population cannot withstand any additional stressors; any potential interruption of foraging behavior may lead to population-level effects and is of critical concern.”
Industrial wind projects “could have population-level effects on an already endangered and stressed species,” concluded the NOAA scientist, Sean Hayes. What are “population-level effects?” In a word: extinction.
What is going on? How is it that nearly every major conservation and environmental organization is actively championing industrial energy projects that could lead to the extinction of a whale species?
Whale Of A Betrayal
Since President Joe Biden took office, he has approved two large-scale offshore wind projects. At least seventeen others are in varying stages of development. Ten side-by-side projects, including the two Biden approved, would collectively cover nearly one million acres of ocean south of New England and sit inside the North Atlantic right whale’s only remaining winter foraging area.
The Vineyard Wind and South Fork projects will site up to 77 turbines, each standing nearly 900 feet just a dozen miles south of Martha’s Vineyard and Nantucket in Massachusetts. Other projects planned for New Jersey, Maine, New York, Maryland, Virginia, and North Carolina.
Why are environmental groups risking the extinction of the North Atlantic right whale with this massive industrial wind project? The ostensible reason is climate change. The project developers say they will produce emission-free electricity for 7 million homes.
But wind energy in the U.S. Northeast will often require 100% natural gas backup to provide power for people on days without wind. And yet the U.S. Northeast has in recent years experienced natural gas shortages because climate change groups led by Bill McKibben and 350.org, as well as Sierra Club and NRDC, have halted pipelines, forcing states to, increasingly, burn far dirtier petroleum during the winter.
And all of the same green groups have been successfully shutting down nuclear plants on the East Coast, including Pilgrim in Massachusetts in 2019 and Indian Point in New York in 2021. Unlike wind turbines, nuclear plants do not need fossil fuels as their backup.
Why, then, are environmentalists supporting wind turbine installation up and down the East Coast? It wasn’t clear to at least one conservationist. “It was strange to see environmental groups, whose focus is on protecting wildlife, seeking to industrialize critical habitats,” said Lisa Linowes of Save Right Whales Coalition.
And so Linowes set out to investigate why that might be. What she discovered shocked her: many conservation organizations supporting the projects had taken money from the wind industry, a clear conflict of interest. “We were upset to discover that the wind industry had bought off so many environmental and scientific organizations,” said Linowes.
Wind energy companies and their foundations have donated nearly $4.7 million to at least three dozen donations to major environmental organizations. Linowes has made public a report and a database documenting the conflicts-of-interest she discovered.
The National Fish and Wildlife Foundation, a granting organization, took up to $1 million from wind energy companies Avangrid and Shell, and then distributed it to other environmental groups. In August 2020, the National Audubon Society received a $200,000 grant from the New England Forest and Rivers Fund.
The same year, the Nature Conservancy received a $165,218 grant from the New England Forest and Rivers Fund. The Nature Conservancy has supported offshore wind since at least 2021.
NJ Audubon has partnered with wind farm developer Atlantic Shores, a joint venture between Shell Oil and EDF Renewables. Ocean Wind, another wind energy developer, has sponsored NJ Audubon’s World Series of Birding event multiple times.
The wind industry has also made hefty donations to scientific organizations:
Woods Hole Oceanographic Institute received a donation of $500,000 from Ørsted in or after 2018. Woods Hole has endorsed offshore wind since at least 2019.
The New England Aquarium received a donation pledge of $250,000 in 2018 from Bay State Wind. In 2019, Vineyard Wind donated an undisclosed amount to the Aquarium. Similarly, in 2020 offshore wind developer Equinor, was cited as a donor in the Aquarium’s annual report. The Aquarium has supported offshore wind since at least 2021.
In October 2020, Mystic Aquarium featured an exhibit promoting offshore wind. In June 2021, Ørsted and Revolution Wind donated $1,250,000 to Mystic Aquarium to create new pro-offshore wind exhibits, but also to research the effects of offshore wind turbines on marine mammals and sea turtles.
Even though NOAA’s own top experts say the impact of wind energy on the North Atlantic right whale cannot be mitigated, the draft joint strategy of NOAA and Bureau of Ocean Energy Management is aimed at doing precisely that. The word “mitigation” is used 45 times in the document. But if Hayes and his colleagues are correct, those mitigations won’t be enough to prevent extinction.
Why, in the end, have environmental groups thrown their own precautionary principle to the wind? Much of it is due to their view that wind energy is needed to solve climate change. But another reason is simply that they were paid.
Stranded: Whales or Wind Investors?
The perilous state of the right whales and the significant financial investment that the wind industry has sunk into the project, including into environmental groups, might lead one to conclude that the whales are doomed.
The wind industry has already paid over $5 billion to the federal government for leases to build off the coast. Major players, including Shell, Duke, and BP have promised to spend billions more. And construction has already begun for the first large-scale offshore wind project off the coast of Massachusetts.
But the whales rebounded in the past and the wind industry is in worsening financial situation.
The North Atlantic right whale population in 1990 was just 264. It then rose to 480 in 2010 before sliding back to 340. It is on a knife’s edge. It can be saved — if true conservationists want it enough.
And the offshore wind industry has been beaten back for decades and could be beaten back again. Indeed, a wind energy developer spent 16 years and $100 million of his own money trying and failing to build a wind project off the coast of Cape Cod. It was killed through a combination of the courts and politics.
And now, action both through the courts and in politics is underway to defend the right whales. Citizen groups are suing the Bureau of Ocean Energy Management, alleging that the agency violated the Endangered Species Act, the Marine Mammal Protection Act and the National Environmental Policy Act in approving Vineyard Wind.
Last month, Falmouth, Massachusetts voted 4-1 to deny Mayflower Wind an extension of its permit for transmission line construction activities.
In New Jersey, nine municipalities are challenging the constitutionality of a law that blocked local communities from stopping transmission landings in their jurisdictions. And U.S. Congressman Jeff Van Drew endorsed an investigation and temporary halt to construction.
All 17 wind energy projects are “confronting considerable headwinds,” acknowledged The Washington Post last week.
Rising project costs led New Jersey’s largest utility to earlier this month announced it would sell its 25 percent stake in the Ocean Wind 1 project. “Shareholders are pressuring companies not to invest in more projects beyond the wave that has already begun,” said a Bank of America analyst.
Meanwhile, there has been an increase in whale beachings, or “strandings.” In the six weeks after December 5, 2022, 14 whales washed up on East Coast beaches in what is known technically as a “stranding.” There have been seven whale strandings year per average since 2002, so the number is very high and coincides with wind industry survey work that increased boat traffic.
Government scientists deny the wind industry killed the whales. “There is no information supporting that any of the equipment used in support of offshore wind development could directly lead to the death of a whale,” said a NOAA official.
But it may be that there is no information because NOAA refuses to look for it.
“We have an unprecedented amount of whales dying here at the same time there is this industrial activity taking place on a scale that has never before happened in these waters,” said Cindy Zipf, executive director of Clean Ocean Action. “Why is this not being investigated? Why are these companies getting a pass?”
Linowes agreed. “There is something not right there. We just scratch our heads and say something is going on.”
One of the reasons NOAA gave for why the public shouldn’t worry about the whale strandings — because the agency had documented an increase in whale strandings since 2016 — was actually a reason to be more not less cautious.
As such, industry-funded environmentalists and NOAA are embracing the “anti-precautionary principle.” It is impossible to imagine a more perfect reversal of the older conservationist ethic than the one that has scientists and conservationists look at dead whales washing ashore while industrial activity is underway and insisting that, not only is there no reason to worry, there is not even reason to investigate.
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